• 7 min read
Building success for the entire organization
by Heather Graham
I have been passionate about women having capable, dedicated mentors since I started my first full-time job working for a bank in Vancouver, British Columbia.
I experienced the power of having a female leader invested in my learning and advancement very early in my career journey. My first mentor took the time to answer my questions, push me outside my comfort zone, and encourage me to take on leadership roles within the organization. Looking back, I know that without those first experiences of support and inspiration, I would not be where I am today.
Women mentoring women is so important—and women in leadership positions can support and contribute to a mentoring uprising in the modern workplace.
Men and women both have a natural desire for community building. But, because women have distinct obstacles, obligations, and aspirations, we bring a unique perspective to supporting and building female communities within our organizations.
Community building creates a valuable professional network that benefits all women within an organization. It’s particularly vital to female advancement in organizations where fewer women have leadership roles. And in the current global environment—where many of us are hunkered down in our homes trying to maintain a sense of normalcy via technology—community building is especially challenging and important.
In my discussions with Ninette Kohler, Haworth’s Director of Marketing Communications for Europe, we agreed that within organizations, we typically measure success by what many consider to be “masculine” qualities. But I believe we could all benefit from celebrating “feminine” leadership attributes more than we do. Women face different challenges than men, and therefore have unique needs in the workplace. It is crucial to understand these needs in order to ensure that women don’t have to make grand personal sacrifices to succeed in their careers.
There are other concerns for women in business. We still have not closed the gender pay gap. With more women in visible leadership roles, we can work harder together to make that happen. And it is still generally the social norm that women take on the larger share of managing the family home and the majority of child care. We need to make sure those women can access more flexible work arrangements, allowing them to move into upper-level, management, and executive positions—while balancing their personal responsibilities.
Additionally, I believe women leaders have a responsibility to use their power to help lift other women up. Why? Because mentored women are statistically more successful in the workplace than non-mentored women. They rise to positions of power more quickly and with fewer roadblocks than women who do not have a mentor.
I encourage female leaders to mentor other women, simply because no one does it better. In order to successfully mentor women, we must have a voice, take our place on stage, and publicly show our interest in mentoring, while advocating for more female representation at the leadership table.
Mentoring does not have to be a formal agreement. Personally, my more successful mentoring relationships have been very informal. The key was that each of my mentors simply had my best interests at heart. They invested in my success without thought for their own interests. And, when I outgrew the available advancement opportunities within an organization, many of them mentored me right out of the company and into more advanced roles elsewhere.
Mentoring isn’t just about boosting careers, and it’s not just the women mentored who benefit. Mentorship done well results in growth for both the mentee and the mentor. The mentee has a chance to develop, excel, and advance more effectively, and the mentor practices essential leadership skills like problem-solving, feedback, coaching, vulnerability, and communication.
When I asked Adithi Khandadai, Senior Graphic Designer at Haworth, and one of my mentees, why it was so important to her to have a mentor, this is what she said:
“My mentors are women who help me learn and encourage being open to change. By giving constructive feedback on the things I’m struggling with, they can assist in setting actionable steps behind the feedback. A good relationship with my mentor means they deliver this feedback to support my improvement. The tough stuff no longer makes me feel helpless and overwhelmed. It helps me to move forward more confidently.”
Many women work in what they perceive as isolation, often feeling like they are not a part of the “boys’ club.” Mentorship can help break the unhealthy belief that “I am alone.” Mentorship helps to strengthen the individual within the organizational community. It gives confidence to their voice and assurance in knowing that they are most certainly not alone in their questions, doubts, and perspectives.
It is particularly beneficial when a female leader mentors multiple women. It creates a domino effect that encourages those women to eventually mentor other women, which then becomes a catalyst to a long list of organizational benefits. These include more successful work processes and projects, easier access to leadership perspectives, endorsement, reciprocated support and, eventually—I hope—more women in leadership positions.
When I worked as a junior-to-intermediate interior designer in Toronto, I had a female mentor who actively championed female advancement in the workplace. She was a strong, competent, compassionate leader who taught me how to balance my dynamic, spirited personality with a considerate approach to communication. She also took the initiative to spend time with other junior and intermediate designers. In turn, we built a robust community around her, sharing ideas, endeavors, efforts, and comparing notes on how to deal with difficult female-specific situations in the workplace.
Women mentoring women is not only transformative for women in the organization, it also has positive outcomes for the organization as a whole. Gender diversity in a leadership team is important for a variety of reasons. The Forbes Global Diversity Report of 2011 states that diversity is the main driver for innovation. This doesn’t come as a surprise; a leadership team comprised of people of different backgrounds, genders, cultures, orientations, and experiences creates a richer conversation around idea generation and decision-making.
There are also good financial reasons for organizations to promote gender diversity in leadership teams. Another report, the Global Leadership Forecast of 2015 concludes that the top 20% of financially successful companies are comprised of 37% female leaders, compared to the bottom 20% of companies who have less than 19% women leaders. The female frame of reference is clearly of benefit to any organization.
Yet despite significant improvements in the advancement of women all around the world, the majority of top positions are still held by men. Some women are breaking the pattern, while others struggle to thrive.
So, what can we do about it?
If you are a woman in a leadership position, make yourself known. Spread the word to all your colleagues and within your teams that you are happy to spend time mentoring any of the women who are interested in having a sounding board. Or, if you prefer a more formal structure, work with your human resources team to set up an in-house mentoring program.
If you are a male leader, consider whether the women on your team might benefit from mentorship, and help make an appropriate introduction. Stay open, stay authentic, and stay vulnerable.
I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences. Has mentoring helped you? Are you mentoring others? If you’ve never been mentored, would you like to be? How do you think it will help? Share your thoughts via the Haworth social media icons at the bottom of this page.
This personal opinion piece was written in good faith and in line with my passion for women lifting each other up. I have also had INCREDIBLE male mentors and managers in my life, but that is for another discussion at another time.
I’d like to extend a very special thank you to all my mentors. I would not be where or who I am today without your belief in me. And, thank you to the team of amazing women who trust my opinions and feedback in their lives and were kind enough to share their thoughts with me for this article. I am so honored, and you all inspire me every day.
And, special thanks to my VP, Glen Foster, who pushes me outside of my comfort zone, believes in me, and supports me—even if we drive each other a little crazy sometimes.
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